Friday, December 21, 2012

Music by Rudi Stephan Graces the Digital Concert Hall

A well-designed program of classical orchestral music can unfold new pathways. It can create associations among works that one would never imagine by studying them individually. Guest conductor Kirill Petrenko, known in particular for his work with the Komische Oper in Berlin ten years ago, brought an exquisite program to showcase rare colors within the Berliner Philharmoniker in an event transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall.

The concert centered on two works by the German composer Rudi Stephan [1887-1915]. Stephan was killed in action during the first world war at age 28, but had already composed a small collection of works published by Schott. Stephan's work is so rare that it is not even included in the fourth edition of the David Daniels Handbook. I found it rewarding to learn both works; the "Music for Violin and Orchestra," from 1911 that closed the first half of the program, and the "Music for Orchestra" of 1910 that opened the second half.

The event began with the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky. The Rundfunkchor Berlin focused on the rich details of vocal balance and articulation in this score. They differentiated accents and sforzandi and were attentive to the endings of pitches and phrases. The work is scored without violins and violas, so the bright winds of the Philharmoniker shone like diamonds.

But the absence of violins in the Stravinsky was also the perfect foil for the Stephan "Music for Violin and Orchestra." Violinist Daniel Stabrawa, a member of the Philharmoniker since 1983, voiced the violin part as a member of the community and engaged his colleagues. The work is cast in unusual colors with extended and recurrent horn solos. Particularly striking in this performance was the moment of frozen, midnight music that happened just after a lengthy developmental passage. The music regrouped during this wonderful passage before entering the march that figures most of the concluding music.

The "Music for Orchestra" was cast as a funeral march interspersed with nightmarish military passages and suddenly lyrical episodes. With the exception of a fugue that never sounded quite integrated into the discourse, this is a work of high quality and memorable personality.

The event closed with "Le Poème de l’extase" by Scriabin. Petrenko led a focused pathway through this score of myriad possibilities, conducting without a baton so that he could shape gestures with both hands. The balance between the ecstatic and the formal clarity of parallelisms and motivic development was exciting.

All four works presented fragmented tonal structures that eventually found their way into C major as they closed. The feel of these approaches differed in each case, each was somewhat more celebratory, culminating in the Scriabin. This was an event to which I look forward to returning once it finds its way into the archive of the Digital Concert Hall.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sarah Willis to Interview the Van Halen of Tuba

Carol Jantsch
photo by Ryan Donnell 

This week horn player Sarah Willis will host two livestream interviews which will be streamed from her website. She has been busy. Earlier today she hosted a family concerto with the percussionists of the Berliner Philharmoniker called “Merry ChRYTHMas” that was transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall.

On Monday Willis will be live on her site at 8am on the US East Coast. She will show a film that she created called “How to choose a new Horn,” and then lead a question and answer session with the Alexander Team in Mainz.

And on Tuesday at 3pm EST Willis will interview Carol Jantsch. Jantsch came to our attention in 2006 when she became principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra while still a senior at the University of Michigan. The tuba has suffered more than any other brass instrument at the hands of outmoded stereotypes. She has single-handedly trashed all of them.

While composers have explored the lyrical and powerful colors of the tuba, its agile side has often been overlooked. Jantsch plays with the dexterity and focal clarity of a string player. But not that kind of string player. She is the Van Halen of tuba.

Jantsch will also become our neighbor here in Connecticut. She will join the faculty at Yale in the Fall of 2013, adding some area code 203 to her 215.

I will be tuning in to both of these live-hangouts. These interviews are of musical interest even for those of us outside of the brass community, and the chat room contains a very welcoming, friendly, and knowledgeable bunch of folks.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sarah Willis is Developing a New Livestream Conversation. Tune in!

Sarah Willis is an engaging horn player. Her work with the Berliner Philharmoniker is well documented both onstage and with the series of interviews she has undertaken in the Digital Concert Hall. She has also recently started new a new kind of conversation about matters related to playing the horn.

Since September her website: has carried a livestream page where she created live interviews with legendary horn players like Gail Williams on matters technical and musical. Prior interviews can also be heard afterward in an archive on her site:

The site creates an opportunity to hear conversation about musicianship that is wide-ranging and of interest outside of the horn community. Her chat with Jeff Nelson of "Fearless Performance" fame is a great place to start.

I will be tuning in on Monday to hear the interview with Myron Bloom, another legendary musician who was Principal Horn of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, and who remained in the orchestra until 1977. Bloom is currently on the faculty at Jacobs School of Music.

The live interview begins at 2:30pm in Berlin, which is 8:30am here on the East Coast.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Different Kinda Magic; review of Met's Un Ballo in Maschera Live in HD

Ulrica almost always makes an impression; she represents one of the handful of contralto roles in the Verdi literature. But Stephanie Blythe had to bring her own magic; this David Alden Met production, transmitted Live-in-HD, erased the supernatural in the opera; replacing it with dreamspeak.

The Ulrica scene in act one is an instance of how messing with superstition can make prophesy become real. The disguised King Gustavo is entertained by the fortune telling; but in deciding to follow Amelia while she  in turn follows Ulrica's instructions in Act II, the prophecy of Gustavo's death at the hands of a friend becomes inevitable.

"Do you think Verdi wants us to think Ulrica is for real," Deborah Voigt asked Blythe in the intermission after act one, "or is she a bit of a con artist?"

"Both," replied Blythe. The role was based on a real historical person. "Madame Arvidsson had quite a collection of friends in the palace who gave her a lot of information," said Blythe. "This prophecy came true and it destroyed her [as well]. After this [prophecy] came true no one would come to see her again." Blythe stated that if Ulrica had any sense of the future she would have known in advance that this event would become her own ruin, and yet that ruin would not be part of the story.

Blythe dug deeply into the text and twisted and curved every color in its diction. She made the juxtapostions of style whenever her music sounded seem as magical as the spells she cast.

Yet the sense of magic, both in the Ulrica scene and later in the graveyard, did not come across in the production and that was a loss. It took time to become accustomed to Alden's concept of this set--which was minimal and frequently contained. The sound even changed in HD; there was an unusual after-ringing in the voices that sounded like reverb.

And there was too much Icarus. The connection was worth a go, but the image became like watching an old "Swan Song" Led Zeppelin record spin on a turntable.

The production did focus attention on the singing; and the cast was incredible. Sondra Radvanovsky sang fire, and had chemistry with both Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The chorus sounded huge and Alden moved them in clever ways.

The third act opened in a claustrophobic black and white space with slanted ceiling. The second scene brought huge mirrors and well-placed projections. In a prerecorded interview between Gelb and Alden, Alden reminded us that Verdi often wrote about kings, politics and rulers. "[But this opera," said Alden, "is about a king who doesn't want to be a king anymore, who wants to escape from his responsibilities, who wants to throw himself into one dangerous adventure after another as if he is looking for death."

"Act III is where the whole story explodes," said Alden, "it becomes impossible to tell where the boundaries are." The surrealistic final scene amplified King Gustavo's deathwish. It focused the lurid and decayed progress of the opera and created its own kinda magic. It required patience but it delivered.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

La Clemenza as Mysterious Stranger; Thoughts on Met Live-in-HD

Photo from Met achives

This music, explained conductor Harry Bicket just moments before he returned to the pit for the second act of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, "is so completely personal."

Bicket explained that Mozart had managed in spite of the "biographical agony of his last year," to engage the antiquated art form of the opera seria and to write music that "distilled all his lifetime experience" into music that is "so personal and touching."

Yet, this opera has had an uneven reception and remains much less frequently performed than Mozart's other late operas. The reasons for this are often attributed to challenges of the opera seria tradition for modern audiences, but this work adapted the seria formula by using ensembles and much more varied aria structures--the challenges extend beyond generalism into the particular. This opera requires listeners to hear beneath its surface.

On the surface the plot is simpler than is typical in Mozart. Conflicted between love for a woman and love for a friend, Sesto agrees to lead a revolt that will burn Rome as a means of creating distraction while he assassinates the emperor Tito. It is the kind of plot in which one might expect Kiefer Sutherland to appear at any moment as this opera becomes the new final season for "24."

Yet, there is more to this opera than is revealed in any synopsis of its plot. The music is often strangely serene, and yet it is achingly beautiful because there is a dimension of sadness scored into the deeper structure of the music.

While the opera begins and ends in C major, the key of Eb disrupts the music several times. This Eb first appears in the royal march and chorus that introduces Tito in the first act. [The architecture of this passage was altered by significant cuts to this section during this performance]. Eb amplifies a  minor modality of C, and the fact that the first act ends in Eb after the dramatic burning of the city and apparent killing of Tito causes us to begin a process of reorientation in our structural hearing.

The second act is a mirror of the first that ends in C major, but it also further develops and refines flat keys like Bb and Eb. There are two important moments in A major, one in each act, that finalize the evidence that the background tonality of this opera is related to the unfolding of a C dorian modality that never appears on the surface of the music, though C minor is articulated strongly in Sesto's accompanied recitative at the end of the first act.

This tonal structure has the meditative stillness of a portrait, but it also gives us access to the unconscious world that we so often feel enacted in the music on the surface of this music.

Things on the surface of this opera are also seldom what they appear to be. The plot appears to be the simple granting of mercy by a ruler. But Slavoj Žižek noticed that the plot displayed a "ridiculous proliferation of mercy" in which "power no longer functions in a normal way, so that it has to be sustained by mercy all the time." Žižek observed that "instead of relying on the support of faithful subjects, [Tito] ends up surrounded by sick and tormented people condemned to eternal guilt."

This classical 1984 production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle at the Met had deep and rich surfaces, but these surfaces were often crumbling or broken, and while they remained beautiful they also revealed the presence of decay. The live-in-HD cameras were more active than usual, perhaps trying to counter the stillness inherent in the musical portraiture.

The singing was impressive, particularly Kate Lindsey who made the often unnoticed Annio into a character who mattered. Elīna Garanča amplified the rich inner conflicts within the character of Sesto. Barbara Frittoli was able to reveal dark humor within the character of Vitellia. Several times the Met audience, and the audience in the theater in which I watched, chuckled quietly at this character normally portrayed as a force of pure and simple evil.

La Clemenza di Tito is the mysterious stranger among the late Mozart operas. I am thankful that the Met transmitted it and am optimistic that it was an opportunity for a much wider audience to glimpse  the forces under the hood  that drive this opera, and to make a new personal connection to this opera that is "so completely personal."
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